The Betrayal of the Freedmen? Rutherford B. Hayes and the End of Reconstruction?
By Roger D. Bridges
"Hideous things happened in the decades after the Civil War. Freed slaves who tried to vote were beaten, jailed, lynched. Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan stopped thousands from registering." That is how Associated Press reporter Katherine Rizzo opened a recent column about Rutherford B. Hayes and the abortive efforts by the Hayes Presidential Library to secure federal funding. Taking her cue from the opposition of a St. Louis Congressman (Democrat William Clay), Rizzo told the familiar story of Hayes election and its massive negative impact on the results of Reconstruction. According to her, Clay said: "I'm not saying this guy was totally bad. I'm saying what he did was incredibly obnoxious and corrupt." Rizzo reported that Clay believed that "a deal cut in 1877 to give Hayes the presidency 'had a devastating effect on black Americans.'"
Rizzo summarized the story as follows:
Hayes, a Republican, lost the popular vote in 1876 but assumed the presidency after considerable controversy and negotiation. The Electoral College gave him a one-vote edge over his Democratic opponent, but Democrats challenged the decision on grounds that some states submitted two sets of returns.
Facing the possibility the country would be left without a president, both parties considered taking the office by force.
But in the end, the Republicans struck a secret deal with Southern Democrats in Congress, who agreed not to dispute the Hayes victory in exchange for a promise to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the South.
Hayes made good on the deal. He swiftly ended Reconstruction and pulled federal troops out of the last two occupied states, South Carolina and Louisiana.
"Instead of withdrawing, he should have sent additional troops out there," Clay said. "An 1871 report to Congress says that in nine counties in South Carolina, there were 35 lynchings, 262 black men and women were severely beaten, and over 100 homes were burned. The Ku Klux Klan was already riding roughshod."
Historians have debated whether more troops would have stopped the Klan or caused a larger blood bath, said Dan T. Carter, a history professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
"I would question whether he had any political options," he said. "He did not have the support of the American people and did not have support even in his own political party."
Nonetheless, "he basically was knuckling under to terrorism," Carter said. "The congressman's exactly right. Hayes should have stood up to the American people and said, 'We're doing this terrible thing,' and instead he came up with this mealy-mouthed political bargain."
Clay had earlier detailed his opposition in a letter to Congressman Paul E. Gillmor, a Republican who represents the district where the Hayes library and home is located. He concluded that
The election of President Hayes was achieved through the conniving of members from both parties in Congress, the governor of a northern state and a member of the United States Supreme Court. This conspiracy was entered into by those who were determined to deny former black slaves their citizenship rights. It involved a commitment to withdraw the federal troops from southern states.
Hayes is mostly remembered for two important incidents, both unscrupulous and unprincipled. First, he and his party participated in a scheme to throw the election into the House of Representatives for resolution by conjuring up phony challenges to electors in several stares. Second, Hayes was named president by a panel that was tainted by the obvious offering of something of value to ascertain the one vote necessary to be declared the victor.
Paul, I have devoted my entire adult life to defending the concept that "All men are created equal and entitled to certain inalienable rights". The career of President Rutherford B. Hayes flies in the face of everything I believe this country should stand for. Therefore, I am compelled to oppose any effort to pay honor to his memory.
A man who claimed to be a Hayes relative called during a live C-SPAN tour of the Hayes Home and wondered "why is it that the best kept secret in history is that Rutherford B. Hayes ought to be the hero of all Southerners cause he ended the military occupation of the South in 1876?".
Clay's views, however, have not always been the dominant view. Early historians and political scientists agreed with Hayes that there was little he could do toward insuring the rights of blacks beyond getting assurances from local leaders. In 1915, retired Columbia University Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law, John W. Burgess declared in his Larwill Lectures at Kenyon College that Hayes believed he had acted both consistently honorably. Burgess noted Hayes "greatest struggle which he had with himself . . . was the question whether he was deserting the just cause of the black man and delivering him back to servitude. Had he not been able to convince himself that his policy of restoring the autonomy of the State governments in the south would not lead to this result, he certainly could never have followed it . . . ." Burgess contended, moreover, that Hayes had behaved the only way a man with his understanding of the Constitution could have acted. Hayes, according to Burgess, recognized that while the national government and the returning boards had jurisdiction over federal returns, once the state had resumed its rightful power under the Constitution, the federal power could not intervene in purely state affairs. Thus there was no inconsistency in counting the Republican electoral votes while accepting Democratic returns at the state level. Without dwelling on the subject here, let me say that this, indeed fairly represents Hayes' views.
Despite the work of several recent historians (notably Michael Les Benedict, Vincent P. DeSantis and Ari Hoogenboom), Clay and Carter's views of the election, the subsequent compromise, its results, and Hayes' complicity continue to hold sway. Although he seems to understand Hayes dilemma, Eric Foner probably sums up the most commonly held notion that "All in all, 1877, confirmed the growing conservatism of the Republican party and portended a new role for the national state in the post-Reconstruction years. . . . To be sure, neither the humanitarian impulse that had helped create the Republican party nor the commitment to equal citizenship that evolved during the war and Reconstruction, entirely disappeared. Southern issues, however, played a steadily diminishing part in Northern Republican politics and support for the idea of federal intervention to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments continued to wane." Even William Gillette, who is generally critical of what he sees as the Republican and Hayes retreat from Reconstruction and protection of blacks and white unionists, agrees that "the reaction of most northern Republicans ranged from enthusiastic relief that the issue of the use of troops in the south would no longer intrude into every campaign, to fatalistic acceptance of the necessity of withdrawal." Still, he writes, "the end of reconstruction could have been achieved with more finesse."
Did Hayes cynically end Reconstruction in order to regain peace and stability as charged by so many writers? Did he knowingly sacrifice human and political rights for party gain? Finally, was there an alternative that Hayes could have profitably pursued? These are difficult questions to answer, and may be no more profitably pursued than the question "What if the South had won the Civil War?" It is clear, however, that by 1876-77, a majority of white Americans were weary of continuing to battle southern intransigence, especially when there appeared some possibility that the South was ready to give more than lip service to the rights promised by the Civil War Amendments.
As early as 1875, Rutherford B. Hayes believed the time had come for the nation to turn away from force and to embrace education as the panacea to the race problem--the root of the continuing refusal by Southerners to accept reconstruction. From his home in Fremont where he had retired after two terms as Ohio Governor, he advised his Texas friend (and old college roommate) Guy Bryan "that the most important thing in Texas, as everywhere else, is education for all. . . . I recognize fully the evil of rule by ignorance. . . . But the remedy is not, I am sure to be found in the abandonment of the American principle that all must share in government. The whites of the South must do as we do, forget to drive and learn to lead the ignorant masses around them." Later that same year, still retired, but soon to return and begin campaigning for his third term as Governor, Hayes noted in his diary that "I do not sympathize with a large share of the [national] party leaders. . . . I doubt the ultra measures relating to the South . . . ." Later, after accepting the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Hayes again wrote his friend: "As to Southern affairs 'the let-alone policy' seems now to be the true course . . . . The future depends largely on the moderation and good sense of Southern men in the next House of Representatives. . . . I think we are one people at last for all time."
Hayes' 1875 election over a popular Democrat to an unprecedented third term as Ohio Governor catapulted him into presidential politics. Although he proclaimed himself indifferent to the prospect of being the Republican candidate, he realized that he was so. It was thus no surprise when the Republican Convention turned to him in 1876 when none of the leading candidates could command a majority of the delegates. He had a good war record, he had Radical credentials, had loyally supported President Grant, and was governor of a state necessary to for success in the election. Moreover, he was acceptable to the reform wing of the party.
Hayes views on Reconstruction, but not on civil rights and suffrage, had evolved over the years. In the pre-Civil War years, while an attorney in Cincinnati, he had often defended blacks and runaway slaves. When Lincoln was elected President, Hayes believed that the Union must confront the South. He was ready to risk conflict and dissolution rather than permit the expansion of slavery. In Congress, after the war, he had supported Radical Reconstruction and had opposed the conciliatory views of Andrew Johnson. In 1868, he had strongly supported black suffrage in Ohio although it was not popular statewide.
His views on the importance of reconciliation between the sections discussed with Guy Bryan, and the resulting salutary effect of race relations in the South soon became public knowledge. In early May newspapers published a letter from Bryan in which the Texan (or Texian as Hayes would say) saying that Hayes would even be acceptable to a southern Democrat. He wrote:
Although I am and have long been from principle, a Democrat, and expect to support and vote the Democratic ticket at the next Presidential election, yet, I hope Gov. Hayes will receive the nomination of the Republican party-for if your party should be successful, there is no distinguished member of it I would rather see President than Rutherford B. Hayes, for I know him well, and I believe that he is honest, that he is capable, and that he will be faithful to the Constitution. Having been in Congress four years, and Governor of Ohio the third time, he has experience, and is a Statesman of incorruptible integrity-besides being a sound lawyer and patriot. One who, if elected, would be President for the whole country, and not for a section. What the South most needs is good local government, and one in the Presidential chair who will do all he can under the Constitutions, Federal and State, to promote it. I believe if elected Hayes will do this.
After Hayes received the nomination, however, he made clear that he preferred not to use the term "local government." As he was rehearsing his thoughts for the obligatory letter of acceptance to the Republican party to Carl Schurz, Hayes wrote:
I now feel like saying something as to the South, not essentially different from your suggestions, but am not decided about it. I don't like the phrase, by reason of its Democratic associations, which you use---"local self-government"---in that connection. It seems to me to smack of the bowie-knife and revolver. "Local self-government" has nullified the Fifteenth Amendment in several States, and is in a fair way to nullify the Fourteenth and Thirteenth. But I do favor a policy of reconciliation, based on the observance of all parts of the Constitution---the new as well as the old---and, therefore, suppose you and I are substantially agreed on the topic.
His letter firmly committed him to the protection of black rights by his insistence that before there could be reconciliation there must be assurances that southern politicos would respect the Civil War amendments and the subsequent legislation to enforce them. Further, he insisted that in order to insure continue Republican success, and leadership as the South resumed greater local control, that the party must continue to wave the "bloody shirt." Hayes certainly believed that some of the leading make weights of the party agreed with his assessment. Late in the campaign, he noted in his Diary: "He [Blaine] has almost precisely my views and hopes as to the South. By conciliating Southern whites, on the basis of obedience to law and equal rights, he hopes we may divide the Southern whites, and so protect the colored people."
When Hayes thought he had lost the election, again his concerns turned to the South and "about the colored people especially." He was convinced that Tilden would be unable to control the baser elements of southern leadership. It would prove of untold evil and calamity to the Southerners themselves. Not only would southern blacks be harmed, he warned, but the entire South would suffer because northern capital would cease to flow and a tremendous out-migration of blacks and white would occur.
As it became more and more clear that the results were not as clear cut as Hayes had thought on election night, and the first few days thereafter, he began to support efforts to secure his election and to assure there could be both reconciliation and protection of the rights and obligations conferred by the Civil War amendments. He recorded in his Diary on December 12, 1876, that he had received assurances from southern Democratic leaders (including Lamar of Mississip, Hampton of South Carolina, and "probably Gordon of Georgia" that they would not oppose Hayes' ascension to the White House, that they would support abolition of the color line and that they would support "measures to secure the colored people of all of their rights." When it became clear that the Electoral Commission probably would decided in his favor, he began to compose a speech that he might give at Fremont before departing for Washington. In that proposed speech (never delivered), he intended to affirm the sentiments in his Letter of Acceptance. If, however, he were to write the letter at the moment he thought he "would give that part on the Southern question greater emphasis." He then recorded exactly what he intended to support:
"What is required is: First, that for the protection and welfare of the colored people, the Thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth Amendments shall be sacredly observed and faithfully enforced according to their true intent and meaning.
"Second, We all see that the tremendous revolution which has passed over the southern people has left them impoverished and prostrate, and we all are deeply solicitous to do what may constitutionally be done to make them again prosperous and happy. They need economy, honesty, and intelligence in their local governments. They need to have such a policy adopted as will cause sectionalism to disappear, and that will tend to wipe out the color line. They need to have encouraged immigration, education, and every description of legitimate business and industry. We do not want a united North nor a united South. We want a united country. And if the great trust shall devolve upon me, I fervently pray that the Divine Being, who holds the destinies of the nations in his hands, will give me wisdom to perform its duties so as to promote the truest and best interests of the whole country.
As Hayes assumed office and began the delicate negotiations to end the difficulties in South Carolina and Louisiana, he continued to maintain the position that the protection afforded by the amendments and federal laws must be upheld in spirit by southern leaders. At the same time, he was convinced that if the rule of law was ever to return to the South, each state must decide local matters for themselves. "The real thing to be achieved," he noted, "is safety and prosperity for the colored people. Both houses of Congress and the public opinion of the country are plainly against the use of the army . . . . The wish is to restore harmony and good feelings between sections and races. This can only be done by peaceful methods." He continued by noting, however, that the federal government must "adopt the non-intervention policy, except so far as may be necessary to keep the peace." As if to underscore his insistence on supporting the rights of all citizens, he appointed the nation's most visible and influential black leader District Marshal.
Thus, at the beginning of his administration, Hayes had set out in clear lines his southern policy. He wanted to eliminate political acts of violence committed against Blacks. He insisted, and believed, that white southerners would adhere to the tenets of the Civil War constitutional amendments. He insisted that the federal government had a responsibility to provide aid for education and public improvements. He also believed it was essential that honest government by educated citizens be restored to the South. Finally, he believed those governments could best be achieved by insuring that blacks could receive an education and thus participate intelligently in elections. As educated electors, he believed both parties would vie for their votes and thus insure their participation.
Perhaps his most telling support, but most disappointing, was his refusal to accept riders to military appropriation bills that repealed laws protecting federal Black voting rights. In 1878 and 1879 he vetoed seven consecutive Army Appropriation Bills for that reason. Well before 1880 it was clear to Hayes that his experiment had failed. He explained the failure by noting the loss of northern will to continue the fight to secure inviolate Black rights. He asserted in an address to a grand reunion of Ohio soldiers in August 1880 that the Union had been saved, and slavery abolished, by war. But, he said, securing peace, prosperity, and the protection of human rights required education. "As long as any considerable numbers of our countrymen are uneducated, the citizenship of every American in every State in impaired." He said that in particular the south had been devastated by the war and need education that those states lacked the funds to provide. Quoting A. H. H. Stuart of Virginia, Hayes insisted that "'Where millions of citizens are growing up in the grossest ignorance, it is obvious that neither individual charity nor the resources of impoverished States will be sufficient to meet the emergency. Nothing short of the wealth and power of the Federal Government will suffice to overcome the evil.'" Hayes insisted then, that the same principle that applied to public works should apply to education. The national government should, by "appropriations from the Treasury of the United States," support local public education. In an 1880 letter to Frank Hatton of Burlington, Iowa, Hayes admitted "there is still in our country a dangerous practical denial of the equal rights with respect to voting secured to colored citizens by the fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.." Again the answer was education. Hayes continued to hold these views to the end of his life.
Sentinel-Tribune, Bowling Green, Oh., Feb. 6, 1995, p. 4, c. 1-4.
William L. Clay to Paul E. Gillmor, Washington, D.C., Jan. 13, 1995 [copy in Director's Files, HPC Archives].
Personal typescript from tape of The C-SPAN Network's "Ohio Presidents Series," December 12, 1995
John W. Burgess, The Administration of President Hayes: The Larwill Lectures, 1915, delivered at Kenyon College (New York: Charles Scribner's sons, 1916), pp. 72-90, quote from p. 90.
For works questioning various portions of this traditional view, see Vincent P. DeSantis, "Rutherford B. Hayes and the Removal of the Troops and the End of Reconstruction," in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds., Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Van Woodward (New York, 1982), 417- 50; Michael Les Benedict, "Southern Democrats in the Crisis of 1876-1877: A Reconsideration of Reunion and Reaction," Journal of Southern History, 46 (November 1980), 489-524. For the most succinct questioning, however, is the work of Ari Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President [Lawrence, Kans.], 1995, 535-38
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, c1988), pp. 586-87.
William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, c1979). p. 346.
Ibid., p. 347.
See Brooks D. Simpson, "Consider the Alternatives: Reassessing Republican Reconstruction," c. 1994, H-Net program at UIC History Department.
Rutherford B. Hayes to Guy Bryan, Fremont, Oh., January 2, 1875, Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes: Nineteenth President of the United States, Charles Richard Wiliams, ed. (Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1922-1926), 5 vols. III, 262-63.
Diary entry, March 28, 1875, ibid.
Hayes to Bryan, Fremont, July 27, 1875, ibid., 286.
"I am still importuned in all quarters to consent to run as Republican candidate for governor. Several suggest that if elected governor now, I will stand well for the Presidency next year. How wild! What a queer lot we are becoming! Nobody is out of the reach of that mania." Diary entry, April 14, 1875, ibid., 269.
Hoogenboom, Hayes, 260-63.
Hoogenboom, "Rutherford B. Hayes and Afro-Americans," unpubl. mss., ca.1995, HPC
Guy M. Bryan to A. B. Norton in Hayes Scrapbook, v. 109, p. 18 [the clipping carries the notation in Hayes' hand "Louisville Courier Journal, May 8, 1876].
RBH to Carl Schurz, Columbus, Oh., June 27, 1876, Diary, III, 329.
July 8, 1876, Oct. 4, 1876, Diary, III, 333, 364; Hayes to Schurz, Aug. 9, 1876, ibid., 341;.
Diary entries of November 11, 12, 30, 1876, and Hayes to Bryan, Nov. 23, 1876, ibid., 375-78, 379-81.
Diary entry, Dec. 1, 1876, ibid., 383.
Diary entry, Feb. 25, 1877, ibid., 421.
Diary entry, March 23, 1877, ibid., 429; see also entries for March 20,21, 1877; entries of March 13, 14, Webb C. Hayes Diary, HPC.
Remarks of Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States, at the Ohio soldiers' Reunion, Columbus, Ohio, August 11, 1880, pp. 3-4.
Hayes to Hatton, Aug. 24, 1880, Diary, III, 623 Betrayal of the Freedmen? 12